Does […] matter?
Readers are invited to fill in the title’s blank with whatever they wish, but in my end-of-sabbatical musings I am inclined to think “out loud” as it were about three candidate terms – truth, place, and time – each of which have been proclaimed by some to be obsolete in light of post-modern theory and/or the latest in communications technologies.
Truth: Having spent my sabbatical largely in California, and having spent it among politically active and critical friends and family, issues about “truth” and “honesty” have loomed large from time to time, along with their logical opposites such as “lies” and “corruption”. Let me state up front that I see the claim that constructivism(s) render truth obsolete to be a straw figure, a misrepresentation of constructivism designed to make it easier to critique. As a constructivist myself, I agree with Michael Lynch (2004) that there are many reasons “Why Truth Matters”. I will not attempt to summarize that book in a fraction of even a long editorial. Rather, I will stick to my post-sabbatical musings, dodging away from the high stakes political episodes witnessed through the past year and drawing instead on one banal encounter on last Sunday’s hike … or rather (just to remain truthful) a pair of encounters.
Here is how I recall them: On my outward-bound hike Sunday morning, I passed a pair of large eucalyptus trees, from which I heard plaintive cries that sounded to me like a hawk’s – kriiiii, kriiii! Sure enough, there was a large hawk, perched on one bare branch high in one of the trees. A family of hikers came along and, seeing me photographing the hawk, studied it as well. The father asked if I knew what kind of bird it was. I replied that I‘d left my field guide back in the car, but I thought it was a juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), since I thought I recognized the banded, not-yet-red tail and the speckled “vest” of that age and species of bird. If I was right, then it was calling out to its parents “Feeeeed me! Feeeeed me!” The family thanked me, saying this was fun to know, then hurried off to catch up with the youngest child who had spotted a small insect further up the trail. Hiking back on the same trail some hours later, I met another family as we all watched some Forster’s Terns diving for fish. They told of having seen a pair of very large birds rise up from the hillside just above us. Not hawks, they thought, because they were much larger and had yellowish breasts. Well, I’d been told once that there were Golden Eagles nesting somewhere nearby, I thought just the other side of the hill, but didn’t know where and had never seen them. Maybe they were as big as the family recalled, and maybe there is some sort of golden shine off their brown feathers? Around the next bend, however, I knew where some Red-Tailed Hawks were nesting. When we came around the bend, the hawks were still there – now both the juvenile and a parent bird, and very soon the other parent as well. But the family felt sure that these were not hawks. Too big, they thought, and look at that yellowish color of their breasts. These were the birds they’d seen, they thought, and might it be that the yellow tinge was the reference point for the name “Golden Eagle”? I was pretty sure that my field guide showed Golden Eagles as brown all over, but I didn’t have it with me so I kept my council and for a while we all watched the birds as possibly Golden Eagles, enjoying the spectacle when one of the parent birds flew straight towards us – either hunting the ground below or trying to scare us off (see cover photo). When I got to the car, I checked my field guide. Sure enough, Golden Eagles are brown all over and half again as big; these birds were Red-Tailed Hawks. But did that matter?
The first family were happy to have a name to attach to the birds. Perhaps any name would do, as my “authority” as someone with a large camera and who claimed to own a field guide was apparently enough for them to accept the name I offered, even if I offered it along with disclaimers. The second family, in spite of my still showing those same badges of authority, were clearly happier to think of the birds as eagles. And truth be told, I was thrilled to consider the possibility myself, however unlikely I thought it to be. If the thrill of having seen “eagles” fed our common interest in wildlife, does it matter in retrospect that the second family and I were wrong, or that I was right in the bird-ID I offered the first family?
In the context of families out on a Father’s Day hike, I think not. Even if the second family later checked, as I did, and found we were wrong, I think no harm was done to their interest in wildlife or sense of competence, as they can blame that old lady with her camera and non-present field guide for having encouraged them in the mistaken identification.
But in other contexts, I do think the correct identification of species matters quite a bit. For instance, on the bird watcher forum where I post some of my photos: Folks there are patient with me as a newbie. They tolerate my ID errors and offer corrections. But I think they would soon lose patience with me if I persisted in misidentifying birds, perhaps even feel insulted that I took the hobby so off-handedly. I certainly do not want to insult them! And … uh oh! I said I would leave the high-stakes politics aside. I guess I lied. I think the correct identification of species matters to us all, amongst other reasons because species density, diversity and behaviors are indicators of the existence and consequences of and possible adaptations to global warming, and that is one set of issues where denial of (what I and many with me see as) convincing truths is leading to (what I and many with me see as) political paralysis with (as I and many with me see it) devastating long-term consequences for humanity.
Place: Earlier that same day, driving in my car to the park, I was listening to one of the area’s public radio stations. The program was an interview with a philosopher who had written a book about the concept of community. I thought perhaps this was Bruce B. Janz talking about his new book “Philosophy as if Place Mattered” (forthcoming). Somehow that title rings a mental bell, but I was driving and couldn’t take notes and have since heard back from Janz that it wasn’t he. Whoever it was, at one point the interviewer asked what the interviewee thought of the use of the term “community” to refer to so-called “virtual” or “on-line” social interactions. The interviewee responded that, while he did not want to disparage such communities, which clearly were meaningful and helpful to many (otherwise they would not come into being), he felt they lacked the heterogeneity of geographically defined communities – also known as “places”. Because actual places in bounded space need social diversity to function well, by sharing that place we also come into contact with others who are, aside from their connection to the same place, quite different from ourselves – an important experience for building social virtues such as broad-mindedness, imagination, generosity etc. Furthermore – linking to another interview I heard that weekend, perhaps with Glenn Albrecht since it discussed the concepts solastalgia and soliphilia (Albrecht 2010)1 – through affection for place, we may learn to nurture that place, protecting it from the degradations we come to realize we are inflicting upon the environment. Virtual communities, by contrast, are based on shared interests and focused on activities relating to those interests – World of Warcraft, or birding, or cycling, or social studies of science and technology. Thus, such “communities” may tend to hide whatever heterogeneity they encompass, since communications may be more narrowly centered on the homogenous aspect(s) of the “community”. And too, those communications take place on screen, divorced from the natural settings outside the office/living room/bedroom window.
I agree with the interviewed author(s) that heterogeneity and affection for place are important features of communities, important to experience in order to build virtues that are vital if societies are to thrive. I’ve made, together with co-authors, a similar point about loss of heterogeneity in public settings through the use of video surveillance for social exclusion (Sætnan, Lomell & Wiecek 2004). But I’m not so sure I agree that social heterogeneity of communities and affection for place are all that much more obvious or more actively experienced in geographically bounded communities than in interest-bounded virtual communities.
To return to the example of the on-line birding forum – one member from India sometimes includes jokes in the notes that accompany his photos. The jokes are marked by his calling them jokes and ending them with bouncing, laughing “smiley” faces. I must admit, I rarely get the jokes, but I do find his amusement from them contagious and laugh along with – not at! – him. Perhaps in time I will even gain a sense for Indian humor. Another member is from Jeddah and through her photos shares with us her love of desert colors -shades of grey, brown and gold – and occasionally also her worries about the geo-political situation in the Middle East. So even in a narrowly defined interest forum, we do not entirely leave our other identities and interests behind.
Of course, I am also present in several geographically bounded communities. Walking around Berkeley, where I work this year, I certainly come into contact with – or at least see – people from many circumstances and walks of life. However, my contact with them can be narrow indeed. Though I do keep a pocket budget for handouts, the many buskers and panhandlers I pass are for the most part only part of the urban scenery for me; I know nothing of how they came to be in that role in that place, what their political views are, what tastes they have in food or music, etc. And they know nothing of me aside from whether I gave them a few coins in passing or not (“stingy old lady” either way, I suspect). The same goes for the bank tellers, the library employees, the baristas and so on that I meet. Even if we exchange first name greetings when I buy my first coffee of the day as I get off the BART train, the baristas and I have only fleeting and narrowly conscribed contacts. And the people I interact more extensively with – family and friends – are quite a homogenous bunch culturally and politically, possibly more homogenous than those I meet in the interest-based “communities” where I’m a member on-line.
Nevertheless, yes, I agree that it is important that I also participate in actual places. I have renewed my affection for this place, where I grew up, and at the same time also intensified my affection for greener, wetter, cooler Norway. And participating in an actual place, I inescapably see, acknowledge, and (however briefly or narrowly) interact with a heterogeneous multitude. Some of those I meet do leave a lasting impression, such as the homeless person dancing enthusiastically if clumsily to the music from a highly skilled piano-playing busker and then pulling his wad of meager holdings from deep in his sack and peeling off a dollar to pay the busker for that pleasure. How can one forget such a moment, however brief and indirect the interaction? But now my membership in this community is also notably temporary; my sabbatical year is rapidly coming to an end.
Time: However, it is not so much the finite or limited resource aspect of time that is claimed to be obsolete. That aspect is demonstrably still relevant, as witness the market prices of time-saving devices and of wage-bought hours. Rather, it is the need for simultaneity that seems increasingly archaic. We need not be in the same time-space to communicate nowadays. Emails, for instance, can be sent instantaneously and received in a very different time-space, or wait patiently for it to be convenient for their recipients to read them. However, as I will argue, both demands for and liberation from simultaneity do impact on time as a limited resource.
Firstly, not all human action has been freed from the need for simultaneity. Although all human action may in some sense be communication, communication does not constitute the whole of human action. Action also goes beyond communication, or at least beyond communication’s abstract content. Action can, for instance, also involve the physical processing of material objects, or the delivery of material services to living beings. So while simultaneity may seem obsolete for some, for others simultaneous co-presence with objects and/or persons is still the rule rather than the exception. Furthermore, as we have come to know, “liberation” from time-bound work has not meant more free time for most, but rather making oneself “agile” and “flexible”, i.e. available 24/7 to cater to the simultaneity needs of others – for instance, taking service calls from around the globe when others need a computer program to run during their local working hours when and where they process materials (see for instance Lelorieux 2010). Then too, how efficient are such non-co-present services? In my sabbatical experience, even the fairly abstract and obviously communicative work of supervising graduate students has proven less liberated from simultaneity requirements than hype might have it. No, I have not been able to meet with my graduate students over a cup of coffee at the campus café, and yes, I have nevertheless been able to offer them supervision, but it has demanded substantially more of my time to do so through emails rather than in person, and I imagine substantially more self-confidence on the part of my students to deal with the drier, harsher language of written comments.
Summing up the year as it nears its end, my year off from the demands of space and time, of co-presence with students and colleagues on my home campus, has been a productive one, but academic years are never productive enough. I managed to pilot a large proposal through to submission, but have not yet heard the outcome. I managed to start on my next book, but not to finish it – not by a long shot! I managed to do my part towards submission of some number of co-authored articles, but none are yet out in print. I managed to keep my graduate students moving forward, but it remains to be seen whether they complete and if so when. And soon now I have to return, fill out reports and account sheets, pick up a stack of theses to grade and a professorship promotion application to evaluate – back to sackcloth and oatcakes, as the saying goes.
Well … I have taken up enough space in this issue and enough time from those who have read this far. I recommend that you read on to other matters discussed below – Renate Brandimarte’s review of discussions on “uncertainty” in track 6 of last summer’s EASST conference, membership news from EASST administration, my call for guest editors for the Review, and the latest listings from the Eurograd site.
I wish you all a good summer, however much time you have to enjoy it and wherever and however you spend that time. Keep it truthful! J
Albrecht, Glenn (2010) “Solastalgia, Soliphilia, Eutierria and Art”. Blog post dated 2 June 2010, accessed 22 June 2011 at http://healthearth.blogspot.com/search/label/soliphilia.
Janz, Bruce B. (forthcoming) Philosophy as if Place Mattered.
Lelorieux, Patrick (2010) “Globalisation and communication in the 21st century”, HR future, accessed 23 June 2011 at
Lynch, Michael (2004) True to Life: Why Truth Matters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sætnan, Ann Rudinow, Heidi Mork Lomell & Carsten Wiecek (2004) “Controlling CCTV in Public Spaces: Is Privacy the (Only) Issue? Reflections on Norwegian and Danish observations.” Surveillance & Society, 2 (2/3): 396-414. Accessible on line at http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/articles2%282%29/controlling.pdf
1 Or perhaps it was the same interview and perhaps Albrecht cited points from and/or mentioned the forthcoming book by Janz, or perhaps some other person cited both. As I said, I was driving and could not take notes.